Canine Behavior/Territorial Behavior only with other dogs
My dog is a 2yr old German Shepard American Staffordshire Terrier mix. She has no problem with people. She gets very territorial with other dogs when it comes to the area where she eats, toys, and her space in general. She will growl, bark and attack. Off leash walks and dog parks she is fine--social and plays with the other dogs, but will violent bark at other dogs when she is on a leashed walk. She also is very territorial of our house with a few dogs in our neighborhood, she will run and attack them if she sees them. What is the most effective way to stop her from this behavior?
Thank you for your question. It sounds like your dog is dealing with two different problems, but with the same or similar motivation for the behavior.
First, she is Resource Guarding her food, toys and general area. It's important to understand that Resource Guarding is a FEAR based behavior. It's a totally normal behavior for pretty much all animals, especially social animals, but some individuals may experience a reaction out of proportion to the situation. Essentially, what's happening is that an individual, in this case your dog, has one or more things that they feel so strongly about, and have such fear that another may try to steal it, that they are prepared to fight to protect it. What is so important to the dog is up to that dog. I've seen dogs guard food (including empty food bowls), water, toys, sleeping spots, people, doorways, rooms, yards (frequently referred to as territorial guarding at that point), even rocks or leaves that have fallen off trees.
Because Resource Guarding is a FEAR based behavior, the best way to help her overcome that fear, and relax enough with her stuff so that she no longer fears that others are trying to steal it, is to avoid saying punishing when she overreacts. Rather, our most effective way to help her feel better, and thus improve her behavior, is to reassure her that those other dogs are not only NOT a threat to her or her stuff, but in fact that their proximity reliably predicts awesome things happening for her. To do this, we set up training sessions where we control how close other dogs get to her (and her stuff) and then provide her tasty bites of her very favorite treats.
We start by first not giving her that very favorite treat for a week so that she is super excited to see/smell it when it appears in the presence of other dogs. Then, while she is tethered and/or the other dog is tethered, we bring the other dog into the space at a distance far enough away that your dog notices the other dog, but does NOT react at all - no growling, no snarling, no barking or lunging, not even fixed stares. Once she's noticed the other dog, rain down several bites of her favorite treat and then remove the other dog from the area. Wait at least 20 seconds, but as long as a couple minutes and then repeat. The pause has NO treats. This way, it will become clear to your dog that the arrival of other dogs, reliably predicts manna from heaven. Once she is clearly relaxed and happily anticipating that treat when she sees the other dog, do another 6 trials to really reinforce the connection before moving the other dog a bit closer. You'll repeat this at each distance until your dog is completely relaxed and happily anticipating the treats before you increase the criteria (social pressure) by decreasing the distance a foot or so.
NOTE: You must always have another person handling the other dog and they must be paying attention to that dog's stress level. Never push the dog to be closer than he/she is comfortable (even if you think your dog is fine). Take breaks whenever either dog needs it.
NOTE: Start with something your dog guards only slightly, rather than something she guards fiercely. Also, you may need to play with the position of the item to minimize her need to guard — you might need to have it right at her feet, or maybe behind her relative to the other dog, or halfway between the two dogs or you may need to be holding it so it's not on the floor or set it on a table or chair where she can see it. This will require a bit of trial and error to determine what makes her more comfortable.
I strongly encourage you to enlist the aid of a local professional who is familiar with treating resource guarding and who uses force free, nonaversive methods to help you learn how to do these exercises. It's important to accurately be able to read the stress levels of both dogs and to get the timing right for both the treat presentation as well as moving the dog closer or further from your dog (or out of sight altogether).
Before you embark on this process, even if you do enlist help from a professional, I strongly encourage you to read the following two books.
On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
, but Turid Rugaas. This book will walk you through a host of subtle cues that dogs give when they're feeling insecure, nervous, frightened or when they're trying to avoid conflict. Knowing how to read these signals will be crucial to your ability to guide her through this process (and her leash reactivity as well) as it will allow you to adjust the training accordingly so that she never feels like she needs to defend her stuff.
I also encourage you to read Jean Donaldson's book, Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs
. This book explains resource guarding in better detail than I can here, and also walks through step-by-step instructions for a few exercises to improve the situation. Take note that the book uses the example of a dig guarding from humans. The exercises will need to be modified to use a dog as the decoy and more care must be taken to ensure both dogs remain comfortable during the process.
NOTE: You will need to do the whole series of exercises with one dog with several different things that she guards since she guards multiple objects. Start with something that she guards little, if at all, and then once your dog is comfortable in close proximity with this item, start the whole process over again (beginning with distance) with an object that she guards slightly more, building up to the items she guards fiercely. We want to set her up for success, so starting with easy stuff will give her opportunity to practice and learn the new rules (dog = favorite treat) before we make it tougher. You may also need to reduce distance by smaller increments or with more trials at each step if she's more concerned.
Once you've done the exercises with one dog, you'll need to start over and do the whole process again from start to finish, over several training sessions, with several different dogs in order to help her generalize that the rule (dog =treat) in all situations.
If tethering by leash isn't an option, you can use barriers such as baby gates or X-pens inside or fences outside. You should practice both inside and outside in many locations to help generalize that the rule is the same no matter where she is. You will not need treats for every encounter forever. But for the immediate future (next few months), you will want them for every single encounter so that the rule is consistent.
Your second issue is an overreaction when on leash. This is a very common situation, and also typically stems from fear. The typical scenario goes like this: dog is on leash and another dog approaches. Leashed dog feels trapped on leash because she can't move away naturally. So she barks to tell the other dog to back off. The handler responds to the bark or growl by yanking on the leash (to hold the dog back) and scolding the dog for speaking her fear. Now the dog has been punished for saying she was uncomfortable and asking for space. Now, the next time she sees another dog, she is not only uncomfortable, but also fears punishment for speaking up, but that other dog is coming! So she speaks up more intensely. It may be more aggressive barking, snarling and lunging. Or it may be that her 'get back' declaration begins earlier, while the dog is further away. And again she gets a leash yank and a scold from the handler... And a viscous cycle is born and before we know it, we have a dog who is freaking out at dogs who are half a mile away and you can't take her anywhere!!!
We can address this as well. Again, we're dealing with a fear response, most likely. It might be frustration. Rarely it is an actual 'I want to hurt you' aggression. But no matter the motivation, we actually address it the same way.
Again, I encourage you to seek out a professional trainer who is familiar with Counter Conditioning (changing her emotional response at seeing other dogs from 'oh no...' to 'Oh YES!!!!!) and Desensitization (increasing her tolerance for the proximity of other dogs while she's on leash). Again, you want to work with someone who uses force free, nonaversive methods. Again, you'll need to be working with other dogs and so you'll need a handler for those dogs and you'll need to take account of their stress level and take breaks or end sessions as needed for either dog. Sessions can be super short(less than 5 minutes) or an hour or so, depending on the dogs and how they're doing. And again, you'll need to practice with multiple dogs in order to generalize the experience. The beauty of these exercises is that you can sometimes do them in a rather 'stealth' way in that you might be out for a walk and see a dog across the stew or up ahead, but far enough away that your dog only takes. Notice, but doesn't actually overreact and so you can do the exercises using that dog as the 'decoy dog' without having that dog even knowing they're helping you train your dog.
The method I'm referring to here is called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). There is a book you can read that explains the protocol in detail and describes several different ways to create training setups. It's called Behavior Adjustment Training - BAT For Fear, Frustrstiom and Aggression
, by Grisham Stewart.
The book is very informative, but parts are a bit dry. She has also revamped the protocol to be easier than the the book. You can find information on her updated protocol at her website:
www.empoweredanimals.com. You are looking for information (graphs, charts, videos and writings) on BAT 2.0
I know it can feel a bit daunting to read what all you have to do to address these issues, but once you start, you'll see that the exercises are actually pretty easy once you get the hang of the timing, and increase your ability to read your dog's stress. And once she starts to get the hang of these exercises, you'll likely see improvements in fits and spurts where it seems to be slow going for a bit, then there will be a leap forward and then another slow down or even some small setbacks if we accidentally push her too far too quickly, or something unexpected happens. This is all normal.
I wish you the best of luck. You can do this. Please feel free to follow up if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behavior Specialist